By Olivia Pape
This article discusses the way in which the contemporary Serbian government appropriates collective memory of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, as well as the construction of the memory narrative upon which the contemporary Serbian state is built. By analyzing relevant scholarship, this essay explores the roots of contemporary Serbian nationalism and analyzes the ways in which Serbian national identity is built upon cyclical notions of victimhood, martyrdom, and heroism, which originates, replicates, and is enacted throughout significant historical events in Serbian and Yugoslav history. This article argues that divergent memorialization and commemorative practices in Serbia, as well as in all former Yugoslav states, have led to the perpetuation of antagonistic memory narratives surrounding the events of the Yugoslav Wars, which has made reconciliation extremely challenging. By utilizing a number of sources relating to the history of contemporary Serbian nationalism, and the break-up of Yugoslavia, this article seeks to present the beginnings of a new framework for conceptualizing national identity in Serbia. In concluding, this article addresses the importance of historical memory in Serbian national consciousness and attempts to imagine potential avenues for a new national consciousness to emerge in the interest of transitional justice and reconciliation, as well as the necessity of such a transformation for Serbia’s future and the future of the former-Yugoslavia.
The collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and Yugoslavia gave rise to a phenomenon that the French historian Pierre Nora referred to as the “recovery of [collective] memory” in the re-establishment of the economic system of capitalism, as well as in the formation of a series of newly independent nation-states, which had, for the most part, never previously existed. In Yugoslavia during the 1990s, memory was “recovered” and even created in order to justify and lay the basis for wars of independence and, ultimately, the creation of separate independent states divided along ethnic lines. During its dissolution, Yugoslavia’s collective and conceptualized sense of identity underwent, to borrow from the American anthropologist of socialist spaces Katherine Verdery, “a reorganization on a cosmic scale.” This required the reconstruction of national identities built upon new historical consciousnesses, distinct from that of socialist Yugoslavia, which emphasized brotherhood and south Slavic unity. The events of the past took on new memory dimensions, as the victorious nationalists on each side rewrote and revised history to create new official historical narratives, which were necessary both for the legitimation of new nations and for the benefit of state actors wishing to absolve themselves of criminal acts. Once history was rewritten, collective memory – that is, the shared memory in the post-Yugoslav space – fell in line.
Today in the former Yugoslavia, liberal democratic transition has been tenable in some cases, and in others, abandoned in all but rhetoric. All states of former Yugoslavia are, as the sociologists Tamara P. Trošt and Lea David explain, “textbook example[s] of how states can harness the past as a tool for the needs of the present.” Even so, the Republic of Serbia stands out, especially given its unique category as the only former-Yugoslav country that views itself as having lost the wars. While Croatia and Slovenia have succeeded in both European Union (EU) and North American Treaty Organization (NATO) accession, Serbia’s accession has been stymied by the re-appropriation of historical memory by populist politicians and movements, which have risen and cemented themselves in the past decade. In 2022, Serbia remains frozen: between conflicts, East and West, and past and present.
Serbia is significant in the post-Yugoslav space not only because it is the largest country in the Western Balkans, with the highest population and thus one of the most internationally important countries in the region, but also because it is the only Yugoslav successor state that considers itself to have been defeated in the Yugoslav Wars. This perception of loss feeds into a particular national historical consciousness which defines Serbian identity and the nature of the contemporary Serbian memory framework in which all political actors are forced to engage. This paper seeks to analyze and understand the role of memory in determining Serbia’s political trajectory over the past two decades. This paper will investigate the role of historical memorialization in ensuring the victory of the memory narrative of victimhood and refusal of culpability first developed during President Slobodan Milošević’s rule. I argue that real traumatic historical events are utilized for the consolidation of a Serbian national identity and narrative, which hedges its bets on impossible battles that, due to their impossibility, can never really be lost either, and thus can be hailed perpetually by the Serbian ruling party as proof of Serbia’s heroic martyrdom.
Map of Europe featuring Serbia highlighted in red. Photo: TUBS/Wikimedia Commons. No changes were made. View the license here.
This paper will deal with five concrete aspects of contemporary Serbian memory politics. In section one, “What is the Current Memory Narrative in Serbia?”, I attempt to place the national memory narrative within time and place. Section two, “The Creation of the Memory Narrative through the Destruction of Yugoslavia,” embarks on a brief historical investigation into the ways in which the wars of the 1990s and the events of the subsequent two decades cemented the present memory regime. Section three, “Political Representation of the Memory Narrative in Action,” discusses the changes to the memory narrative during President Aleksandar Vučić’s rule, which led to a specific valorization and martyrization of the events of the 1990s wars and Serbia’s role in them. Section four, “The Impact on Serbia’s Reconciliation and Democratization Process,” discusses how Serbia’s problematic memory narrative hinders post-war reconciliation, transitional justice, and healing for survivors. Lastly, section five, “Impact on Serbia’s Future as a Country,” explains how this memory narrative blocks Serbia’s capacity to progress as a country.
1. What is the Current Memory Narrative in Serbia?
The Serbian nationalist narrative is rooted in a real fear of being conquered. Although this fear has its base in real historical examples of conquest, Serbian nationalist rhetoric utilizes that fear in order to evade all external criticism or calls for accountability, as well as to justify any actions taken against perceived attacks. The West (that is, the EU and NATO), Nazi Germany, and the Ottoman Empire are triplet aggressors in a proverbial David and Goliath mythology, wherein the smaller power of Serbia must defend against a vastly stronger imperial power threatening to destroy Serbia. This narrative is based on three pivotal moments in Serbian history: beginning with the first and prime injustice, the defeat of the Serbs in Kosovo in 1389, wherein Prince Lazar was slain by the Ottoman Turks, followed by four centuries of Ottoman rule. This pivotal memory narrative then shifts to the Second World War, wherein the Serbs were yet again forced to heroically defend themselves against a much stronger evil – in this case, the Nazi army. The 1990s wars and NATO bombings of Serbia represent the most recent event in this narrative of victimhood, where again, Serbs were victimized by foes with the backing of the entire European community.
The roots of the present situation can be found by analyzing the ways in which a collective memory-based mythology of historical victimhood and martyrdom shapes Serbian national identity, which has played a significant role in determining the nature of the contemporary political regime of Serbia, and the character of Serbian national identity, in the post-Yugoslav space. Nationalist discourses about Serbian history within Serbia are dog whistles for these memory narratives, perpetually replicating themselves in every struggle and conflict, building on the past, and incorporating new representations of this dynamic, ultimately only ever reinforcing the status quo political order and dominant narratives about the past.
2. The Creation of the Memory Narrative through the Destruction of Yugoslavia
For the purpose of the construction of newly re-found nationalisms during the Yugoslav Wars, the Serbian nationalist imagination transformed Croats into Ustaše again, while to Croatian nationalists, Serbs once morebecame Četniks. It was as if the past fifty years had been a mere interlude from the divisions of the Second World War, when Serbia and Croatia were on opposing sides. Former neighbours, brothers, and comrades were pitted against each other for the establishment of mutually antagonistic collective memory historical narratives, which were primarily based on memories of ethnic violence and genocide during the Second World War, but also harkened back to divisions from Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian imperial pasts. In Croatia and Serbia, nationalists resuscitated long-suppressed mythologies of tribal origins and claims to antiquity such as “who came first,” traumas of past centuries, so-called “ancient hatreds,” primordial battles against invaders, and religious differences. In the Bosnian context, as the Serbian historian Dubravka Stojanović states, the war was framed as part of an “eternal conflict… between Christianity and Islam” and as a result was naturalized and made to seem like an inevitable byproduct of an irreconcilable contradiction between religious groups.
For an understanding of the political and social situations in contemporary post-Yugoslav spaces, it is necessary to study how collective memories emerged throughout the collapse of Yugoslavia and 1990s wars, as well as how the memories of the wars themselves became constitutive of the post-Yugoslav nation-building projects. This included the rewriting of history textbooks and media portrayals of the Second World War, which Stojanović refers to as “brutal, surgical cuts in the previous memory model [that] were used in order to change the present.” The Croatian historian Vjeran Pavlaković argues that the successor states, which emerged in the Western Balkans, operate within “entirely new memoryscapes” distinct from the previous Yugoslav national narrative of brotherhood and unity through shared struggle, given the multi-national and multi-cultural nature of the socialist state. In Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia, the wars had ruptured the terrain of historical memory so fundamentally that the emerging states no longer conceptualized the past in a mutually intelligible way.
While today the trajectory of Serbian politics may seem determinist, the process by which Serbia reached its current situation was not linear and developed over several decades. Serbia’s failure to establish liberal democracy is due in part to the reification of the Milošević-era conception of Serbian national identity after the Yugoslav Wars. The Serbian historian Jelena Đureinović argues that the challenges of the present are rooted in the failure to adequately address and confront the past in the immediate post-Milošević era, despite the high expectations of the time. After the peaceful toppling of Milošević in October 2000, prospects for Serbia’s transition towards liberal democracy looked promising. There was finally a chance for the establishment of, as Đureinovic states, “new historical narratives, institutions, and policies that would constitute a separation from the previous government and overcome the violent past and legacies of the wartime 1990s.” Between 2000 and 2004, under Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić, building off of the anti-Milošević resistance movement, there was civil society engagement and economic stabilization. In addition, it seemed as if there would be political alternatives, and free and fair elections for the first time in decades. There were even the beginnings of negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo over the formal status of the latter. In this period, Serbia “pledged its commitment to democracy and to European integration,” giving full support in cooperating with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This would have been the ideal moment for a legitimate break with the past to be forged; however, out of sheer political opportunism, the moment was lost.
Front view of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, in the Hague, the Netherlands. Photo: ICTY Staff/Wikimedia Commons. No changes were made. View the license here.
Although it seemed that, following the nationalist bloodbath of the 1990s, the Serbs could shed ultra-nationalist, far-right politics and embrace Europeanization for its beneficial potential, Đureinović argues that any shifts which took place were merely surface level. Indeed, the Serbian government, despite its clear European orientation, did not engage in the recognition of any wartime victims besides Serbs. Between Milošević and the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS), a break existed only in rhetoric. It was much easier for the new leadership to portray themselves as heroes, having liberated Serbia from communism and authoritarianism, rather than reckon with the wars and acknowledge Serbia’s collective guilt and responsibility for atrocities and genocide. The lack of post-socialist and post-war attempts to deal with the atrocities by implementing and overseeing transitional justice and reconciliation led to perpetrators walking free, survivors to this day unable to locate the bodies of their loved ones, the glorification and/or denial of war crimes, and a refusal to recognize the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre as a genocide. The Yugoslav political scientist Jelena Subotić similarly argues that “transitional justice in Serbia has been one of great disappointment for international justice promoters.” This is largely due to the failure of the coercive efforts of the ICTY in bringing about justice for the victims of the war and fundamentally transforming Serbian society. Instead, those very same attempts at justice were reworked into a memory narrative of the wars that defended Serbian victimhood, rather than culpability.
Đinđić’s assassination by ultra-nationalist “anti-Hague patriots” led to the rise of Prime Minister Vojislav Koštunica to power, who rejected ICTY mandates, refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence, and elevated the political influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church to heightened proportions. While it may seem that this transformation occurred suddenly and surprisingly, in reality the politicians who took power following the overthrow of Milošević did not represent a decisive break with the old regime. Đureinović argues that, in the immediate post-Milošević era, the Serbian government institutionalized a general silence on the 1990s wars due to political opportunism and fears of losing elections if political leaders appeared to be fully cooperating with the European stipulations onSerbian accountability for crimes against humanity during the wars. Instead, during these years, political leaders primarily focused their institutional memory energy on reworking narratives of the socialist past, as well as of the Second World War, preferring to present Milošević as tied to the Communist past, rather than the present Serbian regime.
The transformation of Yugoslavs into Serbs was a fundamentally nationalistic project, as the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and others close to the government searched deep into the historical consciousness of Serbia for an identity distinct from socialist Yugoslavia. Stojanović explains that foundational to the new Serbian national myth-making process was the conception of a “return to oneself,” which she refers to as a “blend of delusion of grandeur, and self-pity, of national arrogance and self-victimization.” In this way, the “we” in the popular memory narrative ceased to be the Yugoslav proletariat and became “the Serbian People” as a whole. This populist conception of the Serbian People is based on a collective Serbian memory wherein all events of the past were simply done to Serbs and are consistently unrecognized by the international community. Stojanović references a Milošević-era school textbook, which claimed that the “the beginning of the war in 1991… was almost identical to that of 1941,” thereby drawing a clear line from the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 to the declarations of independence from the former Yugoslav Republics, which began the wars. The Serbian nationalist leadership then transformed history into a memory war central to Serbian national identity, regardless of facts, contexts, or particularities of any given epoch. History thus became a series of events wherein Serbia only suffered and was constantly terrorized by all neighbours and other nations.
3. Political Representation of the Memory Narrative in Action
The post-socialist memoryscape of Serbia provided fertile ground for far-right ideologies to percolate and advance amidst the recently opened Pandora’s box of contested historical memory, which had been kept shut for decades during the prevailing memory regimes of Yugoslavia. After 2008, the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which arose amidst the break-up of Yugoslavia, experienced a collapse in support and a split in the party leadership over EU accession. Tomislav Nikolić and Aleksandar Vučić, formerly leaders of the SRS, then went on to found the SNS in the hopes of conceptualizing a Serbian right wing that was nationalist in character but also fostered good relations with Europe. As a populist party, the SNS balances both Serbia’s commitment to EU accession and the Serbian nationalist memory upon which the country was founded. The period of the 2010s was highly significant in terms of memory work done in cementing the history of the 1990s into Serbia’s historical consciousness. Under the populist SNS leader President Vučić, Serbia continually experienced, as Đureinović explains, “[A] decline in democracy and a parallel rise of the right-wing populist and revisionist discourses,” which the present regime takes great care to propagate. Đureinović also argues that the state commemoration and memorialization surrounding the Yugoslav Wars only began in 2012, with the ascent of the SNS and the election of Vučić. It was only since then that Yugoslav Wars became incorporated into the broader collective memory of victimhood and heroism. This memory narrative transformed the 1990s wars into wars of liberation, which previous governments neglected, thus amplifying the legitimacy of the SNS for embracing the heroic efforts of the Davidian Yugoslav armed forces, acting as a cover for Serbia, against the proverbial Goliath, in this case the EU and NATO.
After 2012, the Serbian state undertook sweeping efforts to add specific events and dates from the 1990s wars to pre-existing memorialization institutions. It did this through the Board for the Preservation of Traditions of the Liberation Wars of Serbia, a government-sponsored committee established in 1997 and responsible for war commemoration efforts, including the creation of an exhaustive program of important dates in Serbian war history and the commemoration of such dates at a state level. This program, Đureinović explains, had previously included commemorative recognition for dates relating to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, uprisings against the Ottoman Empire, the World Wars, and the NATO bombings. Đureinović statesthat more dates were added, relating to the Kosovo War (February 28th, 1998 – June 11th, 1999), NATO bombings (March 24th – June 10th, 1999), and Operation Storm (August 4th – August 7th, 1995), which exclusively focus on violence against Serbs, and mentioned nothing about the crimes against humanity Serb forces committed during the wars. Historical revisionism, which engaged in various methods of war crime denial, ranging from lack of recognition to defense and celebration under the guise of liberation, thus became a policy of the state enshrined in official government documents.
4. Impact on Serbia’s Reconciliation and Democratization Process
These commemorative efforts, born through the sheer opportunistic efforts of the SNS to capitalize on the internationally unrecognized grief of Serbians, transformed that suffering into rhetorical proof of the present regime’s legitimacy. Through excessive memorialization, culpability for harm was once again also evaded as part of a universalizing narrative that purports the Serbian ruling party to be unified with the Serbian people. This type of memorialization is harmful not only to non-Serbs seeking justice, but also to Serb victims whose suffering has been weaponized by the regime that allowed such harm to befall them in the first place. For example, significant memorialization effort has been dedicated to the victims of the 1999 NATO bombing of the Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) headquarters in Belgrade. The building itself has been left unchanged in its bombed-out form as a perpetual reminder of the crimes of US imperialism, while a small headstone nearby reads, in Serbian Cyrillic, “WHY?”, alongside the names of the sixteen people who were killed by NATO bombs. What the memorial does not tell the observer is that the former general manager of RTS and trusted advisor to Milošević, Dragoljub Milanović, served a decade in prison for withholding evacuation orders, despite being aware the bombing would take place that night.
Tašmajdan Park Memorial to victims of April 23, 1999 NATO bombing. Photo: Mailtrain Hellwire/Wikimedia Commons. No changes were made. View the license here.
This appropriation of memorialization efforts transformed victims into martyrs, occurring simultaneously to the valorization and exoneration of war criminals, such as General Vladimir Lazarević and Ljubiša Diković, who were exalted as heroes and celebrated for their roles in the Serbian liberation struggle against fascism, despite both being sentenced war criminals. Within the zeitgeist of Serbian memory politics, the commemoration of the NATO bombings has very little to do with the actual victims and everything to do with how the Serbian government engages with memory politics as a tool of emotional manipulation and social control. These memorialization efforts serve as very explicit reminders of Serbian victimhood, of “look what they did to us,” and reinforce the cyclical narrative of Serbian history as defined by suffering. Within this paradigm, the recognition of Serbian victims of the NATO bombings becomes synonymous with a defense of Milošević, because of how the Vučić regime appropriates Serbian victimhood for its own aims. In the other way, any recognition of non-Serb victims becomes synonymous with exclusive blame towards all Serbs because of the framework Serbian memory politics operates within. Serbian nationalism thus asserts that mentioning anything other than Serbian victimhood is an overt denial of any Serbian victimhood. Serbian national consciousness widely perceives itself to have been unfairly held culpable by the international community due to the ways in which the world responded to and perceived Serbs during the Yugoslav Wars. In this way, discourses around the human suffering of the wars transcend the ability to adequately address or lead to reconciliation and healing, because they are symbolic of a framework wherein guilt and victimhood cannot coexist.
5. Impact on Serbia’s Future as a Country
Serbia’s EU accession process was originally stipulated upon cooperation with coercive ICTY mandates, but has now shifted towards recognizing Kosovo’s independence and has been overwhelmingly unsuccessful. While Serbia still orients itself towards Europe and sees its future as one where it is part of the EU, as Subotić explains, “Serbia’s reputation as the architect of the Yugoslav breakup and the biggest perpetrator of wartime atrocities” has alienated the country from Europe and worked to undermine accession requirements. This has led to a situation where the Serbian government not only appropriates human rights memorialization, as previously mentioned, but also appropriates transitional justice, by following EU demands without ever fundamentally transforming as a society. While notable war criminals, such as Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, were handed over to the Hague by Serbian authorities to prove ICTY cooperation, these gestures were merely symbolic, as Serbia continued to valorize war criminals domestically, and refused to change its narrative about the wars.
The West has a certain degree of responsibility for Serbia’s scepticism towards the prospect of European integration. Western institutions have never been able to fully absolve themselves for their role in the economic crisis preceding Yugoslavia’s break-up, as well as the conditions which led to the break-up itself, given the billions of dollars in debt Yugoslavia owed to Western institutions, which were then appointed to the various republics once independence had been declared. This has led to an overall distrust in the West by the Serbian people. Furthermore, the NATO bombing of RTS did constitute a war crime, as defined by Amnesty International. Scepticism around so-called “humanitarian aid” during the Yugoslav Wars continues, as does scepticism in the ability of both Bosnia and Kosovo to establish liberal democracy. In addition, by 2008, in what Subotić refers to as a “trade-in… war crimes suspects for EU talks,” the EU overlooked justice in exchange for Serbian recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Thus, the EU, by purporting integration as being a matter of merely mechanistically applying standards and meeting goalposts, has allowed Serbia to evade genuine responsibility for past atrocities.
Real transitional justice cannot be simply bought, bartered, mandated, or negotiated. The ways in which the politicization of memory continues to be employed in the contemporary Serbian context makes moving forward as a country incredibly difficult, because they are rooted in a vision which is, at its core, antagonistic to justice. The conditions upon which peace was established across former Yugoslavia were also not conducive to the type of broader reconciliation necessary for the Europeanization process, because they institutionalized ethnic segregation through separate countries and enclaves, wherein mutual attempts at justice and healing were rendered impossible through the cementation of fundamentally different memory narratives of the war. Ultimately, EU accession cannot operate as both a carrot and a stick for Serbia, promising economic growth and stability in exchange for both the recognition of Kosovo’s independence and justice for victims.
The types of accountability and healing needed for a genuine transformation of Serbian society must emerge from Serbs themselves, through challenging dominant memory narratives of Serbian national identity, without accepting the standard for claims of collective and solitary guilt that was imposed upon Serbia by the international community. A new conceptualization of the memory of the Yugoslav Wars, which necessarily includes a new conceptualization of what it means to be Serbian, would be required. This is only possible through what Đureinović refers to as “memory activism”: grassroots work in the realm of “documentation and knowledge production” that challenges the dominant memory narrative. Such a project would require a public willingness to explore and accept the past and to search for a Serbian national identity not rooted in delusional victimhood and heroism, denial and celebration of war crimes, or claims to sole uninterrupted antiquity. For Serbia to genuinely move forward and forge a new vision for the country, Serbs must be willing to consider what would be worth losing in terms of reckoning with the past in order to gain something much more meaningful: the future.
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